For many in Hollywood, it’s time to get ready for the red-eye again.
As Hollywood emerges from the COVID bubble, showrunners and other industry professionals are preparing for the return to frequent travel for shows in which the location of the writers room and the production offices are separated by thousands of miles.
The portability of production these days and the lure of tax incentives in states like New York, North Carolina and Louisiana has drawn many shows far from Los Angeles. The increasingly global nature of the content business is evident in hits like HBO’s “Succession,” which had its writers room led by showrunner/creator Jesse Armstrong in London while lensing is largely done in New York. More such set-ups are surely coming as the streaming revolution revs up content production around the world.
Ilene Chaiken, showrunner and executive producer of NBC’s “Law & Order: Organized Crime,” started working on the series out of Los Angeles during the COVID lockdown. That meant no set visits to New York – Chaiken didn’t want to take any chances with the health and safety of cast and crew members, nor her own. Chaiken didn’t even meet her stars until the first season finale was filmed last month.
“It was bizarre and somewhat frustrating and alienating,” Chaiken said. “I like to know who’s tall and who’s short and it was just really strange not to have met anyone. I love being on set. It’s an important part of the process in terms of how we understand one another.”
Now that work on Season 2 is under way, Chaiken is “rarin’ to go” when the time is right. “My writer colleagues are excited to get back in a room together and back on set producing their episodes.”
The West Coast-East Coast trek is extremely familiar to veteran showrunner and executive producer Neal Baer. He’s steered “Law & Order: SVU” for 14 seasons and served as showrunner of CBS’ “Under the Dome” and “A Gifted Man” as well as the final season of “Designated Survivor” on Netflix. Since his TV career began in the 1990s, the only show he’s ever been able to walk to from the writers room was “ER” in the mid-1990s.
“I found I got a lot of work done going from LAX to JFK,” Baer said. Straight shots from Los Angeles to New York became like second nature to Baer. Treks to Wilmington, N.C., where “Under the Dome” was filmed, were harder because it required a connecting flight that was often delayed or canceled.
“The saving grace was that Wilmington just had such a palate of great places to shoot – it had small town America, water and forests. It had a lot to offer even if it was hard to get to sometimes,” he said.
Chaiken also spent many hours in the air during her 2014-2018 tenure as showrunner/executive producer of Fox’s “Empire,” which filmed in Chicago. The separation of writers from the action on set does come at a cost, in her experience.
“Long before COVID I observed that when we shoot in a distant location, there’s just less trust of the stories the writers and telling and how we’re telling them,” she said. “If we’re all together, we get to have those conversations.”
Given the nature of content production, Chaiken acknowledges that dealing with distance issues has to be yet another skill that showrunners need to master.
On the positive side, there are benefits to a regular schedule of air travel, as measured in frequent flier miles and elite status designations with airlines.
“That’s the best of it,” Chaiken said. “I went executive platinum during ‘Empire.’ ”
(Pictured: “Law & Order: Organized Crime.”)